This is an excerpt from chapter 4 of ‘Butterfly Season’.
“So, are you going to tell me where we’re going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Am I going to like this surprise?”
His brows went up, and he said mildly, “I hope so, or this will be a very short evening.” They had entered a wooded area, with town houses along one side, and wider, fully detached houses along the other.
“Is it much further?”
“Just up ahead.” The car slowed as they neared a house with several cars already parked in and around the driveway. He found a spot a little further down and pulled in. Rumi got out of the car, and waiting for him to come round to her side, she looked back at the house. They had driven for less than twenty minutes from Juveria’s house, which meant they were still in the Epping Forest area. The houses here had larger front lawns, were set back deeper, and the roads were wide.
Ahad came up to her side, and curved his arm lightly around her. His hand rested on the small of her back as he gently guided her up the slight incline to the house. Dusk had fallen, and night was creeping around the edges. The yellow lights from the street bathed the driveway and lawn in a soft glow.
“We’re going to a party? A friend of yours?” Suddenly, Rumi was nervous. He was taking her to meet his friends. What if they didn’t like her?
“A very good friend of mine, and yes it’s a party, but one I think you will especially enjoy.” Ahad sensed the nervousness in her words, and he pulled her closer to his side as he rang the doorbell.
She looked up at him. He felt a slight shock. Her eyes, normally an open book to him, were opaque and hidden. She had a mask on as smooth as porcelain, though her smile was warm. Very nervous, he thought. She’s got her armor on. The door opened, distracting him.
A willowy blonde woman shrieked and launched herself at Ahad. “Darling! You came! Ali said you were coming, but I didn’t believe him.”
Ahad extracted himself from her embrace, taking her by her upper arms and setting her back from him. He leaned down and gave her a friendly kiss on the cheek, “Jenny, this is my friend, Rumi. Rumi, Jenny.” He placed his arm around her again and brought her forward to introduce her. Jenny turned blue eyes towards Rumi and gave her a genuine smile.
“Rumi. What a great name. After a famous poet, right?” Rumi was taken aback by Jenny’s warmth, and her knowledge of Persian literature. “It’s lovely to meet you.” Jenny stepped forward and gave Rumi a big hug, drawing her into the house as she did.
“Thank you. It’s lovely to meet you as well.” Ahad was grinning as he helped her take off her coat. He had seen the mask slip and crack under the weight of Jenny’s exuberant welcome, though she was still clearly nervous. She clutched her bag and waited for him as took off his own coat.
Jenny ushered them towards the back of the house. Rumi heard voices drifting in from the distance. She followed a chattering Jenny through a spacious hallway, into the living room, and out wide patio doors. “Ahad’s blown off a couple of friends this past week, and we were afraid we weren’t going to see him tonight. I am really so glad that you’re both here.” Rumi had to strain a little to catch Jenny’s words. She was talking very fast and she didn’t seem to expect a response from either of them as she stepped outside.
The patio itself was elevated, with seven steps leading down into a long, long garden lush with tall trees providing a canopy for a riot of tropical palms, leafy bushes and bright flowers. Ivy dropped down from the roof of the house to frame the patio, and tiki lamps were placed strategically around a sunken paved deck. Around fifteen people were gathered here, holding glasses and laughing as they talked. A figure detached itself from the group and headed towards them.
Ahad grabbed Rumi’s hand as he led her towards his friend. “Ali.”
“Hey man, you came.” Ali was short, just a couple of inches taller than Rumi; his head was shaved and he sported a light goatee. From the kiss he exchanged with Jenny, Rumi guessed she was his wife. He reached the two of them and slapped Ahad on the back in welcome. “You saved my hide. Jenny was sure you would bail,” turning a smiling face towards Rumi. He noted the clasped hands, the tense line of Ahad’s shoulders, and understood that Rumi was special.
“Hello, Rumi. I’m Ali.” He extended his hand to her. Rumi had to let go of Ahad to shake Ali’s hand. “I have to thank you for dragging Ahad here tonight. He rarely comes to these things.” He clasped her hand with both of his, looking closely at the woman that had enchanted his friend so much in the space of a single week.
“Oh, I didn’t drag him here. He came voluntarily.” Rumi warmed to him immediately. “And what exactly is ‘one of these things’?”
“Ghazal night. A friend of ours is a trained singer who is kind enough to indulge me this one favor. Occasionally.” He grinned.
Ahad took Rumi’s hand back from Ali, firmly. “She has a lovely voice, Rumi. You’ll like her.” She looked at him with pleasure written all over her face. “Eddie will just have to forgive me,” he murmured, as they walked down to the crowd.
Rumi was nestled in the curve of Ahad’s arm, a glass of juice in her hand, and a platter of cheese on a low stone block in front of her. She had relaxed considerably since they had arrived, warmed by her hosts’ hospitality, and the friendly welcome from their guests. They were an odd bunch of friends. Some of them knew each other from school, and some were old family friends of Ahad and Ali. There were couples and single friends, of various ages and backgrounds, British, Pakistani, and Indian. They were brought together by their similarities and stayed friends in spite of their differences.
They seemed to have a lot of catching up to do with Ahad, and everyone wanted a few minutes with him. She noticed that his friends instinctively turned to him settle arguments, for ideas, listening attentively when he spoke. He kept by her side, introducing her with old world charm to everyone individually, leaving everyone laughing and at ease with the stranger in their midst. He was in his element, a leader among a group of accomplished, sophisticated people.
Jehanara, the friend with the stunning voice, was singing, without music. Even without any accompaniments, she carried the rhythm with ease. Her clear, soft voice swirled around them in the night, her audience rapt, gathered around her on stone benches along the edges of the deck. A small fire crackled in a stone hearth in the center of the recess, keeping them warm in the unseasonably chilly evening.
As her voice faded into the darkness, Rumi leaned towards Jenny. “Don’t your neighbors object to the noise?” Jehanara wasn’t loud, but she was hitting the high notes effortlessly.
“They love it,” Jenny whispered back at her. “They’re not home tonight or they would have been here.” Rumi looked around at the group. They were all talking in hushed tones, unwilling to let go of the sweet notes lingering in the still night air. Rumi turned back to Jenny.
“Can I request a song?”
“By all means!” Jenny waved to Jehanara. “Jehan, Rumi has a request.”
She cleared her throat. “Do you know ‘Kabhi Hum Khubsoorat thay’ by Ahmed Shamim?”
“Good one, Rumi!”
The group gave their unanimous approval, arms going up in appreciation.
“I love that song, Rumi.” Jehanara’s eyes were twinkling, “but Nayyara Noor’s shoes are pretty big. Forgive me if I don’t quite manage to fill them.” Amid laughter and words of encouragement, Jehanara sang, Kabhi hum khubsoorat thay, kitaboon main basi khushboo kay maanind…
Rumi was softly singing along when she felt Ahad lean close to her. “Enjoying yourself?”
Buhot se unkahe lafzon se tasveeren banaatay thay…
Light from the garden lamps threw his sculpted face in sharp relief, highlighting the angle of his cheekbones and the straight nose. His expressive grey eyes were solemn. Instinctively, she leaned up and kissed him lightly, watching as the corners of his eyes crinkled at her voluntary kiss. His mobile mouth stretched in a deep grin. She laughed at the smug look on his face.
Ke hum ko titliyon ke jugnuon ke des jaana hai…
“I love butterflies,” she murmured.